To help us preview this Saturday’s game against Louisville we connected with John, better known as @CardinaIStrong, from the Card Chronicle. Give him a Twitter follow for a different perspective on ACC sports and then join us below for the Q&A.
STS: Louisville is 0-4 in ACC play and ranked 99th in the S&P+ ranking – worst in the ACC. It’s 11 spots behind Wake Forest who just beat the Cardinals by 21.
I’m sure you’re tired of answering this question, but what happened? Is it as simple as losing QB Lamar Jackson from the offense and DC Todd Grantham from the defensive staff?
CardinaIStrong: I understand the reasoning but I think the lazy answer for many Louisville fans is to just point to Lamar and act as if he alone won 25 games during his three seasons here. The fact of the matter is that Louisville has fielded some damn good teams over the years, including the 2014 squad that just had what I would consider a couple decent QBs in Will Gardner and a player who later transitioned to RB in Reggie Bonnafon. That team won nine games in the ACC and beat Notre Dame on the road. So how has a team with a QB who was pinned as “the next Cam Newton” only managed to win two games (neither of which he is actually credited with the win)? The real answer in my opinion is pretty complex, and something I’m 100% sure Clemson fans couldn’t care less about.
In short, I think the staff leaned on Lamar more than they should have which hampered some player development, they didn’t capitalize on his success and the team’s success in recruiting, they allowed Petrino’s authoritative approach to run off good coaches and prevent good coaches from coming on board, and honestly, I think part of all of this is Petrino having lost a step offensively and others finally catching up. There are layers to it all. It’s like a lasagna of problems, Ryan. A really, really, crappy lasagna.
STS: For the third game in a row, Clemson will play a team averaging under 4.0 YPC. The Cardinals average only 3.5 YPC and 112 rushing yards per game (119th/130).
Clemson’s secondary will continue to grow as they’re testing yet again. QB Jawon Pass threw it 54 times against Wake Forest. Although he’s struggled to a 7-8 TD-INT ratio, the receivers are talented. Can you tell us a bit about WRs Smith, Fitzpatrick, and Atwell and the passing attack?
CardinaIStrong: If you wanted to make the argument that this Louisville group of wide receivers was the most talented in the ACC prior to the start of this season I’m not sure many national writers who cover the conference would have disagreed. Pretty much every publication had them in the Top 2 along with NC State and Jaylen Smith was actually considered a Top 10 wideout nationally by many. Smith decided to come back to school after putting up monster numbers last year playing in only ten games (60rec/980yd/7TDs) hoping to slide himself into the first round of the draft. In addition, Dez “Six-Patrick” was a huge threat in the redzone and pulled in nine TDs in 2017 on only 45 receptions. Those two players along with “man hands” Seth Dawkins and incoming Freshman Tutu Atwell were supposed to provide so many targets for Jawon Pass that his only issue would be deciding who got the ball. So why is the passing offense currently hot garbage?
One major problem has been giving Jawon time to actually throw. Louisville is 119th in sacks allowed and 105th in tackles for loss allowed. The offensive line is as robust as the papier-mâché mask you made in 3rd grade, and equally as frightening. Often Jawon is going back to take a three step drop and is smelling what the nose tackle ate for breakfast before he can even plant his foot. When he gets time, his accuracy is still not great and he has yet to develop consistent timing with the wideouts, and to top it all off earlier this year, on the off chance we see both a solid pass block and a good throw…the receivers were dropping balls. These factors mentioned above have resulted in Smith, Fitzpatrick, and Atwell all having Catch Rates under 55%, meaning only slightly above half of their targets result in catches. For comparison Tee Higgins (61.5%), Amari Rodgers (83.3%), and Hunter Renfrow (74.3%) are all significantly better from a statistical standpoint. The Cards wideouts obviously have the talent to make plays and we’ve seen instances of all four doing just that, but on a week to week basis the belief that these guys can find a way to get open consistently and Pass can make the throw on time, and in the right spot, just isn’t there. They are layers to it all. It’s like lasagna of proble-…wait, I already used that one. A parfait of problems?? A really, really crappy parfait.
STS: When Clemson has the ball, what matchup concerns you the most? Which gives you the most optimism?
CardinaIStrong: When I glance over the Clemson roster it’s like a buffet of nightmares in regards to how the Louisville defense has been performing the last few weeks. The first player that scares me is Travis Etienne. I remember watching him come in last year against Louisville in the fourth quarter, with Clemson up 20, and run all over the defense for nearly 100 yards in just 6 or 7 attempts. I point to him because of that experience but honestly Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster, heck you could throw present day Raymond Priester back there and I’m not so sure they could keep him under 150 yards. If the rushing defense performs about the same as we’ve seen the last month or more every back will eat. Period. In fact, Louisville has not kept a team under 250 rushing yards since Week 5 against Florida State.
If I have to pick where I’m more optimistic I think the secondary has shown flashes at times this year of starting to get it, and if nothing else they are limiting the passing attack from the opposition more so than that on the ground. While I love statistics Exhibit 1A of “numbers can lie” is that Louisville currently has a Top 25 Passing Defense only allowing 187.4yd/g. The true story is that those numbers are so low because teams know they can run up and down the field with little resistance. To back that assumption up I can first use my eyes because I see it every week, but secondly I can point to Bill Connelly’s defensive passing statistics and see Louisville is ranked 100+ in every single category. In passing down situations Louisville can’t get off the field on 3rd and long (80th) or third and medium (101st) and the PD-to-INC (percentage of opponent’s incomplete passes due to break up or interception) is…wait for it…dead last in the country at 130th. In other words, the secondary appears okay simply because most teams choose not to risk throwing the ball a ton if they don’t need to. They can force Trevor Lawrence into some tough throws, and may play well enough to make him go two or three deep into his progressions but my gut says if he and Dabo want to air it out, they probably could.
STS: Clemson is 4-0 all-time against Louisville and ESPN’s FPI gives Clemson a >99% chance to get to 5-0. Are there any matchups you think the Louisville offense has an opportunity to exploit to keep this close.
But to respect the Q&A (we must always respect the Q&A) I will provide you an answer as to what areas I think Louisville can find some success.
For the entire season, and even back into last season, I’ve been begging for a running back to step up and become the man. Lamar took over the ground threat for so long that last year and now eight games into 2018 we still do not have clear cut go-to back. Trey Smith found some success last week and Hassan Hall has shown that he can be explosive in open space out of the backfield as well. I think they continue to share the load this week and may find some occasional success early utilizing speed to get outside the tackles. With the Clemson defensive line it would be hard for me to predict success up the middle but I think they can break 100 yards on the ground as a team. In the air I think Petrino realizes that Jawon isn’t going to have time to take a breath in the pocket, much less go through his progressions, so look for quick routes across the middle or screens to get the ball in the hands of some playmakers. If they can dink and dunk early you know Bobby is going to take some shots downfield and for them to keep things competitive they have to hit more of those than they miss. On the big stage I think Jaylen Smith steps up if given the opportunity and for the second straight game goes over 100 yards receiving.
STS: Although it’s disappointing to be sitting at 2-6, many saw this as a likely down year for the Cardinals (we picked them to finish ahead of Syracuse for 6th in the division). Maybe more concerning is that Louisville’s 2019 recruiting class ranks just 12th in the ACC, above only UNC and Syracuse. It seems the momentum they had when they joined the ACC has evaporated.
Is this being viewed as normal rebuilding year (with potentially another failed DC hire) or is sentiment moving towards wanting a new head coach? Given the large buy-out, do you think it’s possible they move on from Coach Petrino?
CardinaIStrong: I could give you 2,000 words about this but out of respect to your readers I’ll trim down my answer to something slightly more concise. Taking a step back I can see where outsiders would think Louisville doesn’t have the reputation or tradition to be calling for a coach’s head after “one bad season” but when you zoom out further it’s much more than that. Why is Louisville struggling? If we start on defense the quick answer is the constant change over at the coordinator position but the real concern is that the one guy who was fielding a Top 20 defense consistently (Grantham) was run out of town and replaced twice with two questionable hires that they were forced to pay a ridiculous amount (BVG makes $950k/yr). Why? Because finding someone to work with Petrino is a challenge and getting someone to agree to that job comes at a cost. The result (twice) is an overpaid coach who isn’t producing. If you want to expand even further Petrino has three (yes, three) family members on the staff who aren’t exactly getting blown up with other offers if you know what I mean. You can call it nepotism; I call it “I have trouble finding other people willing to join my staff”. Either is a problem. The second half of the “coaching debate” is that Louisville took a PR hit bringing Petrino back for one big reason, he can win games. You don’t get the downside of that relationship for past transgressions and field a 2-10 team. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
The second part, as you referenced above is recruiting. Not only are the Cards struggling in 2019, they are struggling locally in a year where the talent coming out of Louisville is maybe the best it’s been in 20 years. For starters there are four 4-star athletes in the city this year according to 247Sports. You know how many Louisville is projected to get? Zero. Go back to last year and Louisville also whiffed on top talent in the state, including Heisman Contender Rondale Moore to none other than Purdue, who is coached by…Jeff Brohm. In fact, Brohm came down and grabbed 4 of the Top 10 players in Kentucky in 2018 and things are trending that way again this season.
The last part I’ll mention that could ultimately lead to the demise of this staff is, what do you point to for 2019? The team hasn’t shown many bright spots and will likely lose the last four games to finish 2-10 with zero ACC wins and zero Power 5 wins. If that happens it also means that Kentucky will come into your stadium the last week of the season, probably fill up 50% of the stands and leave the fans with a disgusting taste in their mouth until August of the following year. What are you selling people to renew their tickets? What are selling people to get excited about in June and July? If you give the staff a pass this one year the unique situation is that Petrino’s buyout actually goes UP in 2019, meaning you could field another team that has a losing season, another six games with a half empty stadium, another year or poor recruiting, and then pay MORE than you would in December. My gut says if Louisville finishes 2-10 and they can convince Jeff Brohm to come back home, Petrino coaches his last game in Cardinal red November 24th. Sorry, that wasn’t all that concise, but now I feel better. Tell me where to mail the check for the therapy bill.